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Tag Archives: university
Posted: February 20, 2017 at 7:49 pm
Students at the University of California, San Diego are protesting an upcoming visit by the Dalai Lama claiming the Tibetan leader is oppressive.
Chinese students are leading objections to the event, which will see the Dalai Lama give a commencement speech on graduation day.
They have claimed that his presence is offensive because of his campaign to make Tibet more independent contrary to the Communist governments position that Tibet is a region of China under their control.
Arguments over Tibetan independence have raged for decades but this dispute is remarkable because activists are conducting it through the language of social justice.
As noted byQuartz, the Chinese student association framed their complaints as an example of cultural oppression and a problem of equality.
A statement accused university leaders of having contravened the spirit of respect, tolerance, equality, and earnestnessthe ethos upon which the university is built.
One student posting on Facebook said: So you guys protest against Trump because he disrespects Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, LGBT.., but invites this oppresser [sic] to make a public speech?? The hypocrisy is appalling!
Likewise, an alumni group based in Shanghai said UCSD will be breaching its ethos of diversity and will leave them extremely offended and disrespected if the Dalai Lamas speech dips into the political.
Chinese officials are known to be extraordinarily hostile to any groups who get close to the Dalai Lama, and do their best to punish governments who engage with the exiled Tibetan regime.
They consider the Dalai Lama a threat to stability in China, akin to a terrorist who wants to split the country.
This is despite his stated aim being increased autonomy rather than outright independence for Tibet, which he fled in 1959.
His insistence on peaceful protest and non-violent resistance won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. It is hard to see who he is oppressing by touring the world, giving speeches and promoting peaceful opposition to China.
Questions have been raised about whether the Chinese government is directly involved in lobbying against the address.
A statement by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association originally said it was seeking support from the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles, but later denied that claim.
Government officials are certainly not above getting involved in campus politics.
At the University of Durham in northern England, the Chinese Embassy in London tried to stop a Chinese-born activist and beauty queen speaking in a debate.
Anastasia Lin, a Miss World Canada winner, was asked to speak at the Durham Union Society on whether China was a threat to the West
But the students organizing the debate received angry calls from embassy officials, claiming that if Lin spoke it could damage UK-China relations, according to aBuzzFeed report.
The students ignored them and went ahead with the debate anyway (Lins side lost).
But the incident underlines that China is prepared to take advantage of a newly censorious atmosphere on campus and its supporters are happy to use the posture of SJWs to get their way.
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Posted: at 7:39 pm
(Newser) “Straight up: This is hell. Getting locked up in Haiti will drive you crazy if it doesn’t kill you first,” homicide suspect Vangeliste Bazile tells the AP from Haiti’s National Penitentiary. The crumbling facility houses around 5,000 prisoners, 80% of which are in extended pretrial detention. Overcrowding, malnutrition, and infectious diseases that flourish in jammed quarters have led to an upsurge of inmate deaths in Haiti, including 21 at the Port-au-Prince penitentiary just last month. Those who monitor the country’s lockups are sounding an alarm about collapsing conditions. “This is the worst rate of preventable deaths that I have encountered anywhere in the world,” says Dr. John May, co-founder of the Health Through Walls nonprofit.
Some inmates are provided meals by visiting relatives, but the large majority of prisoners are dependent on authorities to feed them twice a day and get little more than rationed supplies of rice, oats, or cornmeal. Even clean drinking water is often in short supply. Prison authorities say they try their best to meet inmates’ needs, but receive insufficient funds from the state to buy food and cooking fuel. Haiti’s penal system is by far the globe’s most congested, with a staggering 454% occupancy level, according to the University of London’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research. The nonprofit Institute for Justice and Democracy blames the overcrowding on rampant corruption, with judges, prosecutors, and lawyers creating a market for bribes.
Posted: at 7:28 pm
SpaceX has just announced another successful landing of one of its reusable rockets.
The Falcon 9 rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral at 9:38am local time on Sunday morning, and landed back in the same spot nine minutes later.
SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, shared a photo of the rocket touching down on Instagram, with the caption “Baby came back”.
This was the third SpaceX rocket to be successfully landed on solid ground, and the first to do so in daylight. Five other successful landings have been made on sea-based platforms.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos ,has successfully launched and landed four of its New Shepard reusable rockets.
But space companies have been sending rockets into space for decades, so why the sudden interest in bringing them back to Earth?
The main argument for developing reusable rockets is cost.
At the moment, sending a rocket to the International Space Station costs over $60 million (48 million) – and each rocket can only be used once.
Bezos has compared this to using a Boeing 747 to fly across the country once and then throwing the plane away.
Musk claims that recycling a rocket over and over and learning to fly it like a plane could reduce the cost of access to space “by as much as a factor of a hundred”.
This is because the only cost per launch would be a few replacement parts and about $200,000 for rocket fuel.
For Bezos, developing reusable rockets is about making space tourism a reality.
The idea is to take paying customers on joyrides to the edge of space, where they can experience zero gravity for a few minutes, before returning safely to Earth.
It’s a slightly different approach to Richard Branson, whose spaceflight company Virgin Galactic is also developing commercial spacecraft with the aim of providing suborbital flights to space tourists.
Virgin Galactic’s space tourism project was dealt a major blow after an in-air explosion killed one of the company’s pilots on a test flight in 2014.
However, the company has since unveiled a new spacecraft called SpaceShipTwo, which looks more like an aeroplane than a rocket.
Rather than launching vertically, the spacecraft is carried to its launch altitude by a jet-powered cargo aircraft, before being released to fly on into the upper atmosphere powered by its rocket engine.
It then glides back to Earth and performs a conventional runway landing.
As well as tourism, reducing the cost of space travel could make it possible for scientists to conduct experiments outside the Earth’s atsmosphere.
Blue Origin is already working with the University of Central Florida to build experiments for flight aboard the commercial space company’s new spacecraft.
Physics Professor Joshua Colwell and his team are working on the Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics project, which aims to shed light on the process by which space dust builds up to form planets.
“The UCF team is tackling deep questions about the early solar system and asteroids, questions that simply cant be answered back on Earth,” said Dr. Erika Wagner, Blue Origin head of payload programs.
Further afield, reusable rockets can massively reduce the cost of operating in space.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are already being used to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and launch satellites for paying customers.
Blue Origin also recently unveiled a reusable rocket called New Glenn, which is designed to launch commercial satellites.
Bezos has outlined a madcap plan to save the planet from a global energy crisis by moving heavy industries off the Earth entirely, and building giant factories and solar farms in space.
“Energy is limited here. In at least a few hundred years … all of our heavy industry will be moved off-planet,” Bezos said.
“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space.”
Ultimately, the hope is that reusable rockets will make it possible for humans to explore deep space, and colonise other planets.
SpaceX recently unveiled a design for its Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – a system that involves using reusable rockets to propel spaceships filled with hundreds of passengers to Mars.
Musk claims that each of these rockets will be reused up to 1,000 times. After taking off and delivering the spaceship into orbit, the rocket will return to Earth, where it will land safely.
It will then be fitted with a fuelling tank, before flying back into space to fuel the spaceship for its trip to Mars. The rocket will then land a second time.
By making the rocket reusable instead of discarding it after every launch, Musk said SpaceX hopes to some day make the cost of going to Mars about the same as buying a house.
He envisions 1,000 passenger ships flying en masse to the red planet within the next century, with one million people living on Mars by the mid-2060s.
Musk claims the system could even be used to explore further afield, allowing humans to travel as far as the Kuiper Belt, beyond Pluto.
“I think Earth will be a good place for a long time, but the probable lifespan of human civilisation will be much greater if we’re a multiplanetary species,” he said.
“This system really gives you freedom to go anywhere you want in the greater solar system.”
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Posted: at 7:19 pm
Its sort of Victorian-industrial, but with more whimsy and fewer orphans.
– Caitlin Kittredge, describing the Steampunk aesthetic
Students preparing for the 2017 FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Competition will be exhaling the first sigh of relief this week as the building deadline for robots closed on Tuesday.
The Steamworks theme is a nod to the Steampunk movement, which reflects the blending of Victorian-era mechanical gadgetry and modern science fiction.
It should also make for some interesting team costumes this year.
Since early January, the Kenyon-Wanamingo team 3848, known as Bots in Shining Armor, has been using all their technical skills to design, build and troubleshoot a robot for the contest.
Earlier preparation included a fall robotics scrimmage with last-year’s robot at Prior Lake High School, an event that advisor Doug Thompson also uses to draw in new recruits for the team.
Over the weekend the team participated in a scrimmage with the new robot in Eagan. Thompson said they use that competition to see how their robot performs and learn if they have interpreted all the rules and guidelines correctly. Inspectors checked over the machine and the team still had two days to make improvements before the bag and tag deadline.
According to Thompson, the rules are particularly challenging this year in relation to the size of the robot. It could only be 36 inches by 40 inches, and 24 inches tall, including the bumpers. Previous machines had larger dimensions, but this new size restriction forces teams to build more compact.
The 2017 Steamworks challenge has three main components: shoot softball-sized “fuel balls” into a high or low “boiler,” stack plastic gears to engage rotors for a “flying machine,” and have the robot use a rope to climb on board for the “flight.”
The main robot will be out of commission from now until they attend the FIRST Robotics competition at the University of Minnesota Mariucci Arena on April 5-8.
But that doesn’t mean that the team will be slacking. Thompson had the JV squad build a mirror model that the group can use for practice. That is one advantage that comes from building up a stock of materials and receiving donations for extra funding.
In the fall, the robotics team received a $5,000 grant from Monsanto. Thompson was contacted by a representative from Syngenta near Stanton, who encouraged him to apply.
Other contributors include: Kenyon-Holden-Warsaw Mutual Insurance, Medtronics, Walmart, Toro, the Baalson family (in memory of Jake Baalson), Fastenal, Schwegman-Lundberg-Woessner Patent Attorneys, Alan and Ann Stolee, Paul Clauson, Dr. Jeff Pesta and the K-W Education Foundation.
Along with Thompson, adult mentors assisting the team are: Paul Clauson, Eddie Weyant, Jim Gould and Alan Stolee.
This year’s team has only one senior, Casey Cooper. The juniors are: Kieran Weyandt, Sam Blastervold, Nicholas Kaiser, Ethan Houglum, Markus Rechtzigel and Joe Gould. Cole Newman is the only sophomore, and freshmen are Alan Clouse, Skylar and Xander Blauer and Charlie Severeid.
Team captain Casey Cooper handles much of the welding and fabricating. He said teamwork plays a big role in how they operate. Like a sports team, each person may have different roles to play such as welding, programming, electronics, artwork, finances and building.
Robotics brings students and adults together from different places and groups, he said, yet this makes them connected. Cooper’s favorite part is that they are actually building real robots.
He said the challenging parts will be to make sure their robot can maneuver, get their timing right and overcome obstacles. A lot can depend on the competition they get at Mariucci, he added.
At a table in the shop classroom, Nickolas Kaiser talked with Joe Gould and Cole Newman. Gould held up a mounting bracket that they made with the 3-D printer. They agreed that robotics has helped them understand and apply what they have learned in the classroom about electricity and mathematical calculations like parabolas.
Newman has worked on the programming aspects this year. He said is has a steep learning curve, but he has learned a lot from alumni mentor Bryan Pliscott. Other alumni assisting the team include Peter Clauson, Trevor Clouse, Sam Tudor and Mason Sanders.
A 2015 K-W graduate, Sanders is currently enrolled at South Central College in Faribault. He is able to bring his machining and welding skills to the group and enjoys sharing knowledge and insights.
As he leaned over the robot, discussing an aluminum bracket placement with Cooper, he said it’s cool to see the younger guys stepping up and taking charge. Sanders said he loves the program, calling it “the best extra-curricular that schools offer,” and adding that robotics gave him a huge lead at college in the areas of design and welding.
Freshman Skye Blauer is the only female on the team this year. She brings experience in the Lego robotics program and is helping a lot with sponsorship and record keeping this year. She is also in charge of the team’s interpretation of the Steampunk theme.
Thompson is optimistic about the K-W Robotics Team. With the other mentors, he has built a decent program from scratch that is developing students’ skills and character, and representing K-W well.
What’s next? He shared that a grade 5-8 Lego robotics team was approved by the school district, but all the contest spots were full this year. That’s OK, he said, they have the parts and will be ready next fall.
Reach Publisher and Editor Terri Lenz at 333-3148, or follow her on Twitter.com @KenyonLeader
Posted: at 7:17 pm
Computer programs odor predictions are on the nose.
Image Source/Alamy Stock Photo
By Robert F. ServiceFeb. 19, 2017 , 8:15 PM
Predicting color is easy: Shine a light with a wavelength of 510 nanometers, and most people will say it looks green. Yet figuring out exactly how a particular molecule will smell is much tougher. Now, 22 teams of computer scientists have unveiled a set of algorithms able to predict the odor of different molecules based on their chemical structure. It remains to be seen how broadly useful such programs will be, but one hope is that such algorithms may help fragrancemakers and food producers design new odorants with precisely tailored scents.
This latest smell prediction effort began with a recent study by olfactory researcher Leslie Vosshall and colleagues at The Rockefeller University in New York City, in which 49 volunteers rated the smell of 476 vials of pure odorants. For each one, the volunteers labeled the smell with one of 19 descriptors, including fish, garlic, sweet, or burnt. They also rated each odors pleasantness and intensity, creating a massive database of more than 1 million data points for all the odorant molecules in their study.
When computational biologist Pablo Meyer learned of the Rockefeller study 2 years ago, he saw an opportunity to test whethercomputer scientists could use it to predict how people would assess smells. Besides working at IBMs Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, Meyer heads something called the DREAM challenges, contests that ask teams of computer scientists to solve outstanding biomedical problems, such as predicting the outcome of prostate cancer treatment based on clinical variables or detecting breast cancer from mammogram data. I knew from graduate school that olfaction was still one of the big unknowns, Meyer says. Even though researchers have discovered some 400 separate odor receptors in humans, he adds, just how they work together to distinguish different smells remains largely a mystery.
In 2015, Meyer and his colleagues set up theDREAM Olfaction Prediction Challenge. They divided the Rockefeller groups data set into three parts. Participants were given the volunteer ratings for two-thirds of the odors, along with the chemical structure of the molecules that produced them. They were also given more than 4800 descriptors for each molecule, such as the atoms included, their arrangement, and geometry, which constituted a separate set of more than 2 million data points. These data were then used to train their computer models in predicting smells from chemical structural information. The remaining groups of datatwo sets of 69 ratings and their corresponding chemical informationwere used to test how well the models predicted both how an average person would rate an odor and how each of the 49 individuals would rate them.
Twenty-two teams from around the globe took up the challenge. Many did well, but two stood out. A team led by Yuanfang Guan, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, scored best at predicting how individual subjects rate smells. Another team led by Richard Gerkin at Arizona State University in Tempe best predicted how all the participants on average would rate smells, Meyer and his colleagues report today in Science.
We learned that we can very specifically assign structural features to descriptions of the odor, Meyer says. For example, molecules with sulfur groups tend to produce a garlicky smell, and molecules with a similar chemical structure to vanillin, from vanilla beans, predicts whether subjects will perceive a bakery smell.
Meyer suggests such models may help fragrance and flavor companies come up with new molecules tuned to trigger particular smells, such as sandalwood or citrus. But Avery Gilbert, a biological psychologist at Synesthetics in Fort Collins, Colorado, and a longtime veteran of the fragrance and flavor industry, says hes not so sure. Gilbert says the new work is useful in that it provides such a large data set. But the 19 different verbal descriptors of different scents, he says, is too limited. Thats really a slim number of attributes, he says. Alternative studies have had volunteers use 80 or more categories to rate different smells.
The upshot is that even though the current study showed computers can predict which of 19 words people will use to describe this set of odors, its not clear whetherthe same artificial intelligence programs would rise to the challenge if there were more categories. If you had different descriptors, you might have had different models predict them best. So Im not sure where that leaves us, Gilbert says. Perhaps it serves mostly as a reminder that odor perception remains a challenge both for human scientists and artificial intelligence.
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Posted: at 7:15 pm
Physicians and patients like to believe that early detection of cancer extends life, and quality of life. If a cancer is present, you want to know early, right?
Not so fast.
An analysis of cancer screenings by a University of Virginia statistician and a researcher at the National Cancer Institute indicates that early diagnosis of a cancer does not necessarily result in a longer life than without an early diagnosis. And screenings such as mammograms for breast cancer and prostate-specific antigen tests for prostate cancer come with built-in risks, such as results mistakenly indicating the presence of cancer (false positives), as well as missed diagnoses (false negatives). Patients may undergo harsh treatments that diminish quality of life while not necessarily extending it.
Yet the benefits of early diagnosis through screening often are touted over the risks.
It is difficult to estimate the effect of over-diagnosis, but the risk of over-diagnosis is a factor that should be considered, said Karen Kafadar, a UVA statistics professor and co-author of a study being presented Sunday at a session of the 2017 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. How many diagnosed cases would never have materialized in a persons lifetime, and gone successfully untreated? Treatments sometimes can cause harm, and can shorten life or reduce quality of life.
Kafadar is not advocating against screening, but her findings show that frequent screening comes with its own risks.
As a metric for evaluation, reduction in mortality is considered the standard. So if a disease results in 10 deaths per 100,000 people in a year, and screening reduces the deaths to six per 100,000 people, then there seems to be an impressive 40 percent reduction in mortality.
However, a more meaningful metric, Kafadar said, may be: How much longer can a person whose case was screen-detected be expected to live, versus a case that was diagnosed only after clinical symptoms appeared? This issue becomes harder to discern how long a patient survives after a diagnosis versus how long the patient might have lived anyway. Some cancer cases might never become apparent during a persons lifetime without screening, but with screening might be treated unnecessarily, such as for a possibly non-aggressive cancer. And some aggressive forms of disease may shorten life even when caught early through screening.
Kafadar and her collaborator, National Cancer Institute statistician Philip Prorok, gathered long-term data from several study sources, including health insurance plans and the National Cancer Institutes recently completed long-term randomized control trial on prostate, lung, colorectal and ovarian cancer, to consider several factors affecting the value of screening over-diagnosis, lead time on a diagnosis and other statistical distortions to look at not just how many people die, but also life extension.
People die anyway of various causes, Kafadar said, but most individuals likely are more interested in, How much longer will I live? Unfortunately, screening tests are not always accurate, but we like to believe they are.
Because the paper considers together the factors that affect statistical understanding of the effectiveness of screening, rather than looking at each of these factors in isolation as previous studies have done, it offers a new statistical methodology for teasing out the relative effects of cancer screenings benefits and risks.
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Posted: at 7:04 pm
Petition Delivery and Climate Teach-In at Trump’s Transition Office against the Climate Denier Cabinet, December 20, 2016. (Photo: betterDCregion)
“Please let us remember that to investigate the constitution of the universe is one of the greatest and noblest problems in nature, and it becomes still grander when directed toward another discovery.”
In the age of Trump, the person writing those words has much to teach us about the impending scientific struggles of our own time.
So spoke Salviati on day two of his debate with Sagredo and Simplicio in a hypothetical discussion imagined by the great scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, for his book Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632.
In the Dialogue, Galileo puts forward his heretical view that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun in opposition to the Catholic Church-sanctioned Ptolemaic system in which everything in the universe revolves around the Earth.
Galileo hoped that by adopting a conversational style for his argument, it would allow him to continue his argument about the true nature of the universe and evade the attentions of the Inquisition, which enforced Church doctrine with the force of bans, imprisonment and execution.
However, Galileo’s friend, Pope Urban VIII, who had personally authorized Galileo to write the Dialogue, didn’t allow sentimentality to obstruct power. Galileo was convicted of heresy and spent the rest of his days under house arrest — the Dialogue was banned by the Inquisition, along with any other book Galileo had written or might write.
Typically portrayed as the quintessential clash between religion and science, Galileo’s conflict with the Papacy was, in fact, just as rooted in material considerations of political power as it was with ideas about the nature of the solar system and our place within it.
Amid parallels to today’s conflict between Donald Trump and the scientific community over funding, research, unimpeded freedom of speech and the kind of international collaboration required for effective scientific endeavor, neither situation exists solely in the realm of ideas.
Galileo’s controversial and extended trial on charges of heresy coincided with the political and military problems faced by Pope Urban VIII.
Under pressure from what came to be known as the Thirty Years’ War raging across central Europe between Catholic and Protestant armies, Urban was attempting to shore up and re-establish the might of Rome through the Inquisition, racking up massive Papal debt from increased military spending, while promoting rampant nepotism and corruption.
The analogy with the U.S. of 2017 and the political and economic situation is quite striking, as today’s right wing seeks to assert its authority and impel the country politically and socially backward by launching attacks on immigrants, Native Americans, women and reproductive health, unions, and the gains of the LGBTQ, environmental and civil rights movements. These attacks have been extended across a broad swathe of society, encompassing both the arts and sciences.
After reports emerged in the first days of the Trump administration that he intended to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities — responsible for 0.01 percent of the federal budget — Suzanne Nossel, writing in Foreign Policy, called this “an assault on the Enlightenment.”
Meanwhile, with the election of Trump and his comments on climate change, scientists in charge of the Doomsday Clock moved it another 30 seconds closer to midnight. This is the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953, at the height of the Cold War and following the decision by the U.S. to upgrade its nuclear arsenal with thermonuclear weaponry.
“The Trump administration needs to state clearly and unequivocally that it accepts that climate change is caused by human activity,” theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss said at a press conference announcing the Doomsday Clock time change. “Policy that is sensible requires facts that are facts.”
Unfortunately, fact-checking website Politifact has shown that 71 percent of Trump’s public statements range from “mostly false” to “pants on fire” levels of absurdity.
Within hours of Trump’s inauguration, rumors began to circulate that government agencies such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been ordered to scrub references to climate change from their websites. There were other reports of gag orders on the Department of Agriculture and a freeze on EPA grants.
NASA climate scientist James Hansen was famously gagged during the presidency of George W. Bush, along with hundreds of others at seven different federal agencies who were ordered against using the term “global warming.”
However, scientists at the EPA say Trump’s mandate that any data collected by them — including information that is of direct consequence to people’s health and that of the planet — must first undergo political vetting before being release to the public takes things much further down the road to outright censorship.
As far as gutting the EPA entirely, it’s certainly not beyond possibility, considering that a key adviser to Trump and his head of transition for the EPA, Myron Ebell, called environmentalists “the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.”
One wonders if he had in mind an editorial in Nature, one of the world’s leading science journals, which, under the headline “Scientists Must Fight for the Facts,” described Trump’s energy plan as “a product of cynicism and greed” for its adherence to talking points taken directly from the fossil-fuel industry.
As bad as our air, water and soil is today, we know before the EPA’s creation under Richard Nixon in response to a wave of gigantic pro-environment marches in the 1960s and ’70s, things were much worse.
In response to these attacks — and the resulting increase in stress and anxiety over job security — scientists have called a March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, in Washington, D.C. Like the giant Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, the science march has already spawned calls for solidarity protests in other cities across the country.
One-fifth of scientists in the U.S. are immigrants, meaning the lives of thousands of scientists and science students have already been affected by the travel ban, leaving people traumatized, but also mobilizing for the protests. A petition drawn up by academics against the anti-Muslim immigration ban, Academics Against Immigration Executive Order has garnered more than 20,000 signatures, including over 50 Nobel Laureates.
The head of the largest professional science organization in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, physicist Rush Holt described the change under Trump as taking long-standing attacks against science in the U.S. to another level: “In my relatively long career I have not seen this level of concern about science…This immigration ban has serious humanitarian issues, but I bet it never occurred to them that it also has scientific implications.”
But resistance from scientists is emerging from all quarters. As Republicans tried to pass a bill to sell off more public land to corporations and fossil-fuel interests, workers at the National Park Service went rogue around the country, setting up their own social media sites to combat disinformation and let the public know what was happening.
Predictably, the March for Science has drawn controversy for “politicizing” science, even though scientists have signed a range of open letters calling for stronger action to combat climate change, and climate scientists have already held a rally in San Francisco in December last year protesting Trump’s election victory and his anti-science rhetoric.
By selecting Earth Day, the march is clearly connected to Trump’s specific and highly political attacks on government bodies and scientists associated with climate change research and other environmental concerns.
Despite this, renowned Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker tweeted: “Scientists’ March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric” — apparently because the website included information about the importance of diversity and intersectionality.
Meanwhile, science writer Dr. Alex Berezow, who penned a blatantly political book about the supposed anti-science proclivities of the left, tells us he won’t be on the march because it doesn’t mention white men, Christians or privately-funded science research.
More seriously, Robert Young, one of the co-authors of a report on rising sea level and its impact on the coastline of North Carolina — which drew the ire of the real estate lobby and conservative politicians, along with scathing humor from Stephen Colbert — argued in the New York Times that the march is a bad idea:
A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars, and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.
On the other side of the debate, biologist Christina Agapakis tweeted, “Is it going to be a fuck yeah science facts march or a science is political and made by humans march?”
Agapakis importantly went on to argue that not having political demands doesn’t make any sense nor help achieve the goals of the scientists: “If 300 years of scientists pretending to be apolitical wasn’t enough to convince someone that climate change isn’t a hoax, then erasing political issues from the march isn’t going to change anyone’s mind either.”
As far as the substance of this discussion is concerned, one immediate and obvious question would be to ask who is “politicizing” science?
Given Trump’s rejection of climate change, his attacks on science, his appointment of the former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and his intended appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA — a federal department which Pruitt spent his tenure as attorney general of Oklahoma suing over a dozen times — if anyone is “politicizing” science, surely it’s already being done by the president.
Indeed, when the editors of the thoroughly mainstream USA Today issue a statement calling for Pruitt’s rejection as head of the EPA because Trump “couldn’t have nominated someone more opposed to the agency’s mission,” you know you’re involved in politics.
Although Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith might disagree. The inveterate climate denier and anti-science champion — but nevertheless somehow chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — has said that listening to President Donald Trump, as opposed to the media or scientists, was likely “the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
To talk of a supposedly apolitical science is wrongheaded to begin with. Science has been political since its modern inception with the Scientific Revolution, which began in part with Galileo’s experiments on projectile motion for the highly political purpose of launching more accurate cannonballs.
Science is as much a cultural artifact of society as art, music or fashion. Of course, science is about investigating the natural world through rationalism and empirically verified investigation, but the questions asked by scientists, what they obtain funding to investigate, and the methodology they use are all contoured and distorted by the society within which they are embedded.
We can see that contradiction with climate change research itself.
The reason we know so much about the atmosphere and climate is because climate research grew out of the military’s need in the 1950s to track wind currents so it could predict where radioactive fallout would be most severe following nuclear war (which scientists working on the Manhattan Project had made possible in the first place).
In the U.S., that research gave rise to the building of the interstate highway system to facilitate military transportation and the evacuation of population centers — which in turn generated the phenomenon of the suburbs and the growth of a culture centered around the automobile and fossil fuels.
There is a difference and a contradiction between the philosophy and method of science based in empirical evidence and rationalism and how it is practiced in a class-stratified society, by people just as subject to social prejudices and norms as anyone else.
Though some individual scientists may profess and even believe they are disinterestedly studying the way the universe works merely for the sake of it, science is part of class society. As such, it is faced with the same contradictions as any other facet of an unequal and exploitative social system.
However, because scientific explanation for the way the natural world works needs to correspond to objectively observable and experimentally verified facts and rationality, the contradictions inherent to it and the field’s intrinsically political nature are often more clearly expressed than other areas of human culture.
As has been repeatedly shown through history, science can be used to bolster the political status quo or help tear it down.
Famed American sociologist of science Robert K. Merton argued in the 1940s that science was a collective endeavor for the civic good, in which sharing of ideas within the scientific community and the wider public was a paramount consideration.
“The communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as ‘private property’ in a capitalistic society,” Merton wrote. “Patents proclaim exclusive rights of use, and often, nonuse.” According to Merton, science would come into conflict with rulers whenever efforts were made to enforce “the centralization of institutional control.”
One of the most infamous stories in the history of science is scientists’ role in justifying the characterization of racial superiority of the so-called “white race” with the rise of scientific racism in the 19th century — a precursor to Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies of the 1930s.
Another example of science justifying the status quo: Social Darwinism is rooted in the idea that we are genetically predisposed to behave in greedy and selfish ways — these human attributes are naturalized in modes that just happen to coincide with the values necessary for capitalism to survive.
And of course, it was scientists and engineers who developed atomic weapons, nerve gas, pesticides and fracking.
Conversely, a better understanding of the natural world through science also gives us wondrous things: birth control, modern medicine and vaccinations, to list only a tiny fraction of the vast contribution to socially useful knowledge and technologies we have obtained through scientific experiments and theoretical development. We are going to need to apply this knowledge and technology to avoid dangerous, human-induced climate change.
These examples illustrate what really irks Trump about science — and why the March for Science in Washington is such a crucial development.
Here it’s important to be clear about what Trump isn’t doing. He’s not saying corporations or private funding for science should be cut, only government funding of science — particularly climate science, while carefully exempting the military. The question Trump is ultimately posing — and what scientists and everyone else need to understand — is this: Should there be any science in the public good?
Trump is not telling businesses to stop doing science. He wants the federal government to stop doing science in the public interest. He wants an end to fact-based discourse wherever the facts run counter to right-wing ideology.
Understanding his assault on science in this manner connects it to the wider Republican and corporate attacks on public education and health care. It is the logical endpoint of capitalism in its most unrestricted form.
As such, it is an intensely political attack that can only be successfully repelled by a similarly political response.
We want and need more funding for all branches of science in the public good and an increase in research into areas of climate change, agro-ecology, renewable energy technologies, medical research and so on. We can only justify these on the grounds of our values, values that emerge from our political orientation and desire for just social outcomes with regard to health, clean air, and unpolluted soil and water.
This is really what scientists who are genuinely opposing the “politicizing” of science — as opposed to those with conservative politics using the complaint to oppose protest — mean: science can furnish us with facts about the way the physical world works, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what to do with those facts once we have established them.
For example, science and technology have furnished humans with the ability to hunt down and drive whales to extinction. But it tells us nothing about whether we should or not. Which is to say, science tells us nothing about what is right or wrong — that comes down to our values and is therefore an ethical and political question.
But most people would decry such a rigid attempt at fence-sitting, particularly when people’s lives and the health of the biosphere are at stake. And especially when one considers the already highly political nature of scientific research, grants and so on under capitalism. As radical educator Paolo Freire commented, “To sit on the fence in the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor means to take the side of the oppressor, not to be neutral.”
Though is clearly attempting something even more extreme, we can learn much about state repression of publicly funded scientific knowledge, research and communication from the behavior of the conservative administration of Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Under Harper, Canadian scientists were followed, threatened and censored, while libraries were closed and science research programs cut.
Noting that 24 percent of Canadian scientists reported being required to exclude or alter scientific information for non-science-based reasons, Robert MacDonald, a Canadian federal government scientist for three decades, commented:
That’s something you would expect to hear in the 1950s from eastern Europe, not something you expect to hear from a democracy like Canada in 2013…And I think, by all indication, that’s what our sisters and brothers are going to be faced with down in the United States.
The attacks, cuts and muzzling of scientists by the Harper government, particularly in any field even remotely connected to climate change, were extensive and systematic, undermining any claim to a democratic, truth-oriented administration.
Highlighting the purpose of the censorship, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations explained in the run-up to Canadian demonstrations by scientists in 2013:
In the absence of rigorous, scientific information — and an informed public — decision-making becomes an exercise in upholding the preferences of those in power.
In Canada today, as in most of the developed world, power has become increasingly concentrated in fewer hands — hands which are inevitably attached to the bodies of big business and the state. And in light of Prime Minister Harper’s agenda to rebrand Canada as the next energy superpower, it would seem that both the corporate interests and the state are focused on the expansion of the resource extraction industry in Canada.
In the federal capital of Ottawa, hundreds of scientists clad in lab coats carried a coffin in a funeral procession to mark the “death of scientific evidence.” This and dozens of smaller marches elsewhere had an observable impact on people’s perception of the Harper government.
In a lesson U.S.-based scientists should take to heart, the decline in popularity of the Harper government — and the subsequent electoral victory of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, signaling a more positive, less hostile approach to science, if not a break with big business, including the energy industry — can be traced in part to the 2013 marches by scientists.
Hence, for all the naysayers in the scientific community who want empirical evidence about the efficacy of a political protest, look no further than the Canadian experience. According to one of the organizers with the group behind the protests, Evidence for Democracy — which is advising U.S. scientists on their march — commented, Trump’s attack on science:
absolutely echoes what we saw under George Bush in the States and what we saw under Harper, except it’s so much swifter and more brazen than what we saw under Harper…But at the same time there’s been a huge resistance coming out of the scientific community and that’s been really heartening to see.
Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, has written that “scientists are, in general, a reticent lot who would much rather spend our time in the lab, out in the field, teaching and doing research.” Nevertheless, Mann went on to call for a “rebellion” against Trump, due to the severity of Trump’s assault.
As Dr. Prescod-Weinsten, a cosmologist and particle physicist at the University of Washington, commented: “What history has taught us is that…[w]hen we work with extremist, racist, Islamophobic or nationalist governments, it doesn’t work for science.” Nor one could add, for humanity.
The assault on science must be recast and seen as entirely political. It is being made in order to further the interests of fossil fuel-based corporations. Beyond that, it is part and parcel of a larger political project to drive society back and call into question all forms of publically funded scientific, fact-based research, data gathering and dissemination in the interests of ordinary people and the public good.
Which brings us back to Galileo and what should be the purpose of scientific endeavor.
One of the other things that so angered the Inquisition was that Galileo chose to write his treatise not in Latin, the language of academia and the well to do, but in the language of common people. Galileo quite deliberately wrote his book in Italian so that it would be widely read — before being banned, it was a best seller — and discussed.
Galileo was doing science for the common good — presenting a fact-based, better understanding of the world to more clearly inform people of how their world worked. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in his essay on “Writing the Truth,” “The truth must be spoken with a view to the results it will produce in the sphere of action.”
Scientists must be political in order to be more effective scientists, not less effective. The struggle is really about the question and need to further democratize science. That means scientists seeing themselves as “citizen scientists” — in the mold of Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould.
For Commoner, scientists are obligated to rebel to fulfill their mission of science in the public interest and for social good. He wrote:
The scholar’s duty is toward the development of socially significant truth, which requires freedom to test the meaning of all relevant observations and views in open discussion, and openly to express concern with the goals of our society. The scholar has an obligation — which he owes to the society that supports him — toward such open discourse. And when, under some constraint, scholars are called upon to support a single view, then the obligation to discourse necessarily becomes an obligation to dissent. In a situation of conformity, dissent is the scholars duty to society.
If science is all about taking a critical eye toward the investigation of natural phenomenon for the betterment of humanity, then rather than seeing protest and public involvement as somehow detrimental to that project, these should be seen as at the heart of the process.
We must pose the question: What are the goals we want for society? How can we help society realize those goals? To effectively answer those questions, scientists must necessarily dissent from those in power who seek to stifle empirical research and do so by informing and involving laypeople to aid their cause.
Making the March for Science on Earth Day big and political as possible is the best way to help further that process, push back Trump’s right-wing agenda and enlist more people to support science in the public good.
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